Woodfire Grill: Smokin'
1782 Cheshire Bridge Road, Atlanta
Hours: Dinner only, Tuesdays-Saturdays.
Parking: Complimentary valet.
Dress code: Dressy casual.
Reservations: You will need them, and further in advance than you think.
I always root for the home team when I’m watching Bravo’s Top Chef, the reality show pressure-cooker featuring “cheftestants” from around the country. Last season, we had three Atlantans: Hector Santiago of Pura Vida, Eli Kersh-tein of Eno and the voluble Kevin Gillespie, who’d recently taken over the kitchen at Woodfire Grill. Despite the ferocious hog tattooed down his forearm, Gillespie seemed far too nice, his food too simple and Southern to satisfy the demanding judges.
But, like another Atlanta chef from a previous season, Richard Blais, Gillespie made it to the finals, where he had an atypically bad night. And like Blais, though just missing the top prize, Gillespie may have made the most impact on viewers. (Gillespie won “fan favorite.”) Both did us proud, showing what a new, artfully articulated vision of “Southern food” might be – while being sweet young gentlemen.
Blais and Gillespie also may end up with the last laughs. Unlike their seasons’ winners, the two are part-owners of their own restaurants – booming restaurants, thanks in part to their TV appearances. Flip, Blais’ homage to the burger, and Woodfire Grill are packed these days – and Gillespie has said that before Top Chef, the restaurant was struggling.
That’s not surprising, given the devoted following previous chef/owner, the sustainable/seasonal pioneer Michael Tuohy, had earned over the years at Woodfire Grill. Before Top Chef, I, too, wondered how the restaurant would fare – how could this “new” chef ever reinterpret Tuohy’s personal enterprise? Or would it just limp along on Tuohy’s old menus? I hoped another of our town’s best restaurants would not go by the wayside. But Gillespie’s work – at least on TV – seemed fascinatingly fresh.
In fact, Gillespie’s Woodfire does anything but limp. Everybody in the place seems to hurry along in confident strides, smiling broadly. The sense of comfort and cheer is almost palpable – the wait staff and front-of-the-house crew behave like actors in a surprise Broadway hit. And the food: It, too, is worthy of an encore performance – perhaps the best meal I’ve had at an Atlanta restaurant in a year.
Gillespie takes Tuohy’s emphasis on quality ingredients and applies Woodfire’s wood-burning grill, but then takes the fare to the next step, combining all with surprising results, without overcomplicating.
We began with a salad of Maine peekytoe crab, with roasted local beets, avocado puree and curry aioli. Dainty and delicate as a lacecap hydrangea, and just as pretty, the dish’s piquant flavors seemed to play hide-and-seek, each showing itself in turn. The old-fashioned oyster dressing had all those flavors, but used fried oysters, bacon-hot sauce mayo, fresh apples and pickled cabbage as a kind of chow-chow.
We sipped a dry Spanish cava rose with our entrees, pan-roasted wild sturgeon, with Romesco (a nut-and-tomato peasant sauce) crust and root vegetable gratin – sturdy, beautiful, gratifying. But the wood-grilled quail was something more than the sum of its parts, a glisteningly lacquered, mostly deboned package of tender bird, over roasted endives and greens. The quail’s molasses-like glaze and “rutabaga mustarda” lent the dish an almost Chinese balance of sweet, earthy and wild flavors. The gorgeous little brown-edged Brussels sprouts had perhaps more of their share of butter and fat in the bottom of the dish – but boy, were they good. A wicked chocolate bread pudding rounded out the meal.
If Gillespie is leading the way toward a new kind of Southern table, I’m ready to take a seat.